The US and Iraq are beginning to hammer out a security accord that will define their relationship for years to come, but it probably won't resemble the postwar agreements that have left thousands of American troops in places like Japan, Germany, or South Korea.
Just how different the US-Iraq relationship will be remains far from clear. But neither the Bush administration nor military analysts believe it's in the US interest to have permanent bases in Iraq and look like the occupying country many in the Muslim world suspect it to be. Nevertheless, it's likely that the next administration, be it Democrat or Republican, will agree to having a substantial number of US forces there for at least some years.
The agreement administration officials are working on with the Iraqi government would probably not affect the number of forces being drawn out of Iraq now. But it would set the stage for a long-term security strategy for the two countries.
The Bush administration and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have already agreed to a set of "principles for friendship and cooperation" that creates a foundation for a more formal agreement that would normalize relations between the two countries.
The US has to have some kind of agreement to have forces in Iraq since the United Nations Security Council Resolution agreed to in 2002 is set to expire within the year. But Democrats and some Republicans are convinced that the Bush administration is doing an end run around Congress that would tie the hands of a future president.
Some members, representing both parties, say the Constitution prevents such a move.
The US maintains "status of force" agreements (SOFAs) with dozens of countries. These accords, which typically don't require congressional approval, merely outline the basic tenets of US presence in other countries in terms of the number of forces to be assigned there, what their roles and missions are, and how, for example, wrongdoing by American personnel could be adjudicated.
A formal treaty is a more comprehensive document between allies that requires ratification and approval by Congress. It delineates a broader agreement, including the security arrangements and how, for example, the US might protect another nation should it be attacked.
Administration officials contend they are not creating a treaty with Iraq, but critics are concerned that a SOFA amounts to one, anyway – or that it will define a larger bilateral security accord to come later.
Although SOFAs include numerous other factors, central to them is the number of American troops that would be assigned to that country. In the case of Iraq, it is hard to determine how many forces should stay there because, unlike most other nations with SOFAs, Iraq is still far from stable.
There are currently about 157,000 troops in Iraq, and some analysts believe that even after a full political reconciliation leading to long-term stability, it may require as many as 80,000 US troops for at least several years to ensure the peace.
By way of comparison, the US maintains about 32,000 troops in Japan, another 27,000 in South Korea, more than 57,000 in Germany, and nearly 10,000 in Italy. Most analysts agree it will be years before Iraq can begin to be compared with those other countries.
While they may not want US forces in their country for the long term, Iraqi government officials need US assistance on many levels. For example, Iraq may want US forces to help defend the country against external attack.
These security needs may provide the US the necessary leverage to persuade Iraqi leaders to make the necessary political accommodations all seek, say some analysts.
"The biggest problem to political accommodation is the Iraqi government, and if we continue to give them an open-ended commitment, they have no incentive to make the decisions they have to make," says Colin Kahl, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University in Washington. Mr. Kahl says the US could leave as many as 60,000 to 80,000 troops in Iraq to provide security for say five years, and then could reduce that dramatically.
"Any presence like that over the long term, like a decade, is a bad idea," he says. "That will inevitably feed the narrative the jihadi movement has about our goals in the region."
"I do not believe Iraq in its current condition is the right place to envision a regional hub for future US forces," says Mr. O'Hanlon. "Our interests would not be well served by pursuing a long-term presence there for reasons having to do with issues and interests beyond Iraq; we have Kuwait and Qatar and the [United Arab Emirates] for that."
While the Democratic front-runners have called for US troops to begin coming home, they have not committed to a quick wholesale withdrawal. GOP front-runner John McCain said he'd be happy leaving forces in Iraq for at least 100 years.
"We've been in Japan for 60 years, we've been in South Korea for 50 years or so," he said at a campaign rally in New Hampshire earlier this month. So a long-term troop presence in Iraq " would be fine with me as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed."